Dogs Can Cleverly Teach Us About Connection and Empathy

6 min read

There is ever-growing global interest in human-dog relationships. Not only can they help us along, but we can also help them enrich their own lives. The best human-dog relationships are those in which the needs of the people and the canines are valued and fulfilled, a win-win for all. Along these lines, I’m pleased that Alexis Devine could take the time to answer a few questions about her new book, I Am Bunny: How a “Talking” Dog Taught Me Everything I Need to Know About Being Human.

Source: William Morrow

‘I Am Bunny’ by Alexis Devine

Source: William Morrow

How does your latest book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I’ve always been interested in how many forms communication takes, but looking objectively at my life before Bunny, one could say that my book doesn’t relate much at all to my professional background or prior areas of interest. The through line has always been art, but what I did for work was all over the place, having consistently been a means to an end during a troubled search for a more meaningful connection to both myself and others. Caring for Bunny brought all of that into focus. I am now a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Learning about behavior, training, canine cognition, and welfare has become a special interest of mine, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is yet to know.

Who do you hope to reach in your interesting and important book?

While I am certain that my book will be of interest to many people who share my love of animals, specifically dogs, I also believe that artists will appreciate the visual aspects as well as my discussion surrounding the search for self. Furthermore, anyone who has struggled with their mental health (and who hasn’t, if we are being honest) will, I hope, feel less alone, more heard, and perhaps empowered. I consider this a “full-value” story. Frank and relatable on many levels.

What are some of the major topics you consider?

The first sentence of I Am Bunny is, “This is not a book about a talking dog.” I understand this may cause some confusion since “talking” is in the title. I use the word “talking” many times and often in quotes because I realize that while it feels like what I am doing with Bunny is “talking,” I am not allowed to call it that without significant scientific pushback, pushback from people whose opinions I deeply respect, and from whom I have learned a great deal.

Here’s the thing: until we can quite clearly define language without it being a constantly moving goalpost, neither can we pigeonhole “talking,” whose definition already includes the conveyance of information in “any” way with or without sound. Not to mention that such silly semantic games completely miss the point. I try to make it clear right off the bat that the core of this story is connection to oneself and to others, human and non-human, through whatever means necessary.

Bekka Mongeau/Pexels

Source: Bekka Mongeau/Pexels

The fact that the words I use to describe what Bunny is doing are interpreted through so many lenses to mean so many things just goes to show that words without their context, as Wittgenstein said, are ostensibly meaningless. I encourage people to call it whatever makes them happy and to remain skeptical. Skepticism keeps us grounded and, in the best of worlds, allows us to approach new ideas from a place of neutrality. But we must understand that communication is happening all the time, and we can choose to acknowledge or ignore it. I have chosen to acknowledge it.

I spend a good amount of time speaking about both dog and human welfare and how hard it can be to come by when we lack the necessary context. For example, living most of my life without an autism diagnosis created a belief system about myself that hindered my growth. I believed that I was stupid and unlikable. That I was a flawed human.

I believed these things to my core until I had information that allowed me to reframe my past experiences through a new lens. Similarly, before I understood canine behavior, I viewed Bunny’s reactive behavior as “bad,” “annoying,” and “problematic.” It wasn’t until I was able to recognize the underlying emotional discomfort she was experiencing that I could begin to empathize and truly help her through those challenging times.

Another thing I touch on is what we’ve learned from prior animal language studies and what we can do differently this time with the best interests of the animals in mind. Many of these studies took animals out of the wild and, without regard for their species-specific needs, asked them to engage in human-like behavior with the goal of learning more about human behavior. Anthropocentric at best and at worst, well, read the book. Dogs, on the other hand, have been evolutionarily selected for their ability to communicate and cooperate with us.

We already know that they learn words. Ask anyone who has to spell W-A-L-K in front of their pup. In an environment where they are hopefully set up to have the majority of their needs met (our homes, granted many home environments are still woefully ill-equipped to that purpose), we can offer them alternative methods of requesting those needs, and because we still have so much to learn about how our canine friends experience the world, we may be surprised by what they have to say.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

I find a lot of books about dogs, whether related to training, cognition, or ethology, aim to teach a lesson, and I have, in fact, learned a great number of lessons from these books. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the last four years, however, is how little we truly know. I invite readers to remain curious, to allow themselves to hold disparate emotional experiences simultaneously, and to remember that empathy is the key to understanding.

Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs, they will be more open to developing and maintaining a relationship that is a win-win for them and for us?

I am very hopeful for this. How we relate to our non-human counterparts speaks volumes about our own socio-cultural well-being. I can sense the beginning of a paradigm shift, and I want to do everything in my power to keep that ball rolling.

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